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Wilson's Border Tales
The Red Hall


Somewhat more than five hundred years ago, and Berwick-upon-Tweed was the most wealthy and flourishing city in Great Britain. Its commerce was the most extensive, its merchants the most enterprising and successful. London in some measure strove to be its rival, but it possessed not a tenth of the natural advantages, and Berwick continued to bear the palm alone—being styled the Alexandria of the nations, the emporium of commerce, and one of the first commercial cities of the world. This state of prosperity it owed almost solely to Alexander III., who did more for Berwick than any sovereign that has since claimed its allegiance. He brought over a colony of wealthy Flemings, for whom he erected an immense building, called the Red Hall (situated where the Wool-market now stands), and which at once served as dwelling-houses, factories, and a fortress. The terms upon which he granted a charter to this company of merchants, were, that they should defend, even unto death, their Red Hall against every attack of an enemy, and of the English in particular. Wool was the staple commodity of their commerce; but they also traded extensively in silks and in foreign manufactures. The people of Berwick understood FREE TRADE in those days. In this state of peace and enviable prosperity, it continued until the spring of 1296.

The bold, the crafty, and revengeful Edward I. meditated an invasion of Scotland; and Berwick, from its wealth, situation, and importance, was naturally anticipated to be the first object of his attack. To defeat this, Baliol, whom we can sometimes almost admire—though we generally despise and pity him—sent the chief men of Fife and their retainers to the assistance of the town. Easter week arrived, but no tidings were heard of Edward’s movements, and business went on with its wonted bustle. Amongst the merchants of the Red Hall, was one known by the appellation of William the Fleming, and he had a daughter, an heiress and only child, whose beauty was the theme of Berwick’s minstrels, when rhyme was beginning to begin. Many a knee was bent to the rich and beautiful Isabella; but she preferred the humble and half told passion of Francis Scott, who was one of the clerks in the Red Hall, to all the chivalrous declarations of prouder lovers. Francis possessed industry and perseverance; and these, in the eyes of her father, were qualifications precious as rubies. These, with love for his daughter, overcame other mercenary objections, and the day for their marriage had arrived. Francis and Isabella were kneeling before the altar and the priest was pronouncing the service—the merchant was gazing fondly over his child—when a sudden and a hurried peal from the Bell Tower broke upon the ceremony—and cries of "The English! to arms!" were heard from the street. The voice of the priest faltered—he stopped—William the Fleming placed his hand upon his sword—the bridegroom started to his feet, and the fair Isabella clung to his side "Come, children," said the merchant, "let us to the Hall—a happier hour may bless your nuptials—this is no moment for bridal ceremony." And, in silence, each man grasping his sword, they departed from the chapel, where the performance of the marriage rites was broken by the sounds of invasion.

The ramparts were crowded with armed citizens, and a large English fleet was seen bearing round Lindisferne. In a few hours the hostile vessels entered the river, and commenced a furious attack upon the town. Their assault was returned by the inhabitants as men who were resolved to die for liberty. For hours the battle raged, and the Tweed became as a sheet of blood. But, while the conflict rose fiercest, again the Bell Tower sent forth its sounds of death. Edward, at the head of thirty-five thousand chosen troops, had crossed the river at Coldstream, and was now seen encamping at the foot of Halidon Hill. Part of his army immediately descended upon the town, to the assistance of his fleet. They commenced a resolute attack from the north, while the greater part of the garrison held bloody combat with the ships in the river. Though thus attacked upon both sides, the besieged fought with the courage of surrounded lions, and the proud fleet was defeated and driven from the river. The attacks of the army were desperate, but without success, for desperate were the men who opposed them.

Treachery however, that to this day remains undiscovered, existed in the town; and, at an hour when the garrison thought not, the gates were deceitfully opened, and the English army rushed like a torrent upon the streets. Wildly the work of slaughter began. With the sword and with the knife, the inhabitants defended every house, every foot of ground. Mild mothers and gentle maidens fought for their thresholds with the fury of hungry wolves, and delicate hands did deeds of carnage. The war of blood raged from street to street, while the English army poured on like a ceaseless stream. Shouts, groans, the clang of swords, and the shrieks of women mingled together. Fiercer grew the close and the deadly warfare; but the numbers of the besieged became few. Heaps of dead men lay at every door, each with his sword glued to his hands by the blood of an enemy.

Of the warriors from Fife, every man perished; but their price was a costly sacrifice of the boldest lives in England. The streets ran deep with blood; and independent of slaughtered enemies, the mangled and lifeless bodies of seventeen thousand of the inhabitants paved the streets. The war of death ceased only from lack of lives to prey upon. With the exception of the Red Hall the town was an awful and a silent charnel-house. Within it were the thirty brave Flemings, pouring their arrows upon the triumphant besiegers, and resolved to defend it to death. Amongst them was the father of Isabella, and by his side his intended son-in-law, his hands, which lately held a bride’s, dripping with blood. The entire strength of the English army pressed around the Hall; and fearful were the doings which the band of devoted merchants, like death’s own marksmen, made in the midst of them. What the besiegers, however, failed to effect by force, they effected by fire; and the Red Hall became enveloped in flames—its wool, its silks, and rich merchandise blazing together, and causing the fierce element to ascend like a pyramid.

Still the brave men stood in the midst of the conflagration, unquailed, hurling death upon her enemies; and, as the fire raged from room to room, they rushed to the roof of their Hall, discharging their last arrow on their besiegers, and waving their swords around their heads with a shout of triumph. There, also, stood the father, his daughter, and her lover, smiling and embracing each other in death. Crash succeeded crash—the flames ascended higher and higher—and the proud building was falling to pieces. A louder crash followed, the fierce element surrounded the brave victims—the gentle Isabella, leaning on her bridegroom was seen waving her slender hand in triumph round her head—the hardy band waved their swords and shouted "Liberty!" and, in one moment more, the building fell to the earth, and the heroes, the bridegroom, and his bride, were buried in the ruins of their fortress and their factory.

Thus fell the Red Hall, and with it the commercial glory of Berwick. Sir William Douglas surrendered the castle to Edward, and the town was given up to plunder and brutality. Its trade in wool and in foreign merchandise was transferred to its rival, London—and need we say that it has not recovered it?

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